Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Julia Allison, Eat Your Heart Out


William Safire is running scared, haunted by the specter of the en dash. Crumbling under the evident shame of his foray into "postpartisan" stylistics, he waxes inoffensive this week in a Clinton-tinged bit on "bird-dog minutes" and their rhetorical reappropriation. Fair enough: Safire has realized, or been shown, that punctuation is utterly outside his purview, and he will restrict attention to language as such or face the consequences.

But traces of last week's backfire impregnate the bird-doggery at hand: they circulate, collide, and threaten to implode the whole sorry exercise. As Safire hedges and triangulates, looking over his parenthetical shoulder at the recent farce — "nonpartisan (not postpartisan[!!])" — and welcoming, again within the safety of parentheses, a one-off exchange with his beleaguered copy His refusal to give explicit justification for the hyphen in "bird-dog minute" or, for that matter, in "bird-dog" the verb, would under other circumstances be a refreshing endorsement of his readers' presence of mind — compound adjectives, different usage, etc., etc. — but here it merely throws into relief Safire's meekness, his fear, his outright humiliation and final acknowledgement that one man's syndicated meta-pedantry is another's common sense. editor, he appears more emaciated and discreditable than ever.

Sad though it is to see a columnist of Safire's putative stature, or at least age, curl up in resignation, these foregoing moments mold only the general affect of this latest entry "On Language," not its moment of critical collapse beneath the deferred pressure of the en dash — and his proven inability to cope with it. As he trails off, cold-shouldered by the Clinton camp, surrendering to the (consistently impressive) Dictionary of American Regional English, he foretells the many "dialectical delights" lurking behind the etymology he refuses to investigate. Not "dialectal," linguists' preferred term for all things of or pertaining to dialects, but "dialectical," that philosophical catchall cherished (and, admittedly, abused) by enough of Safire's academic–political enemies to fill the University of Wisconsin several times over. Certainly "dialectical" can refer to dialects, but the word is so colored (overdetermined?) by theoretical currents from Moscow to Frankfurt to the Left Bank and beyond as to render its plain-clothes linguistic application comical, a quiet kowtow to the en dash's transformative promise, which Safire conspicuously flouted last week. But perhaps this is just what the author so quietly aspires to harness.

The en dash, in a selected category of usage, summons a vibrant, polyvalent, and entirely value-neutral dialectic between the terms it links. Whereas the hyphen routinely venerates hierarchy — understood in at least a grammatical sense: prescribed order of words — the en dash levels it. "Singer–songwriter," to take a familiar example, could just as easily, and as correctly, be "songwriter–singer": the terms are on equal footing, and any conventional ordering we maintain is only that — conventional. Singer and songwriter: it is a simple, unmarked pairing. It is infinitely and productively reversible, always in motion or pointing toward its possibility: dialectical. And in those en-dash cases which manifestly do report hierarchy — "master–slave," for example, from Safire's good friend Hegel — the imbalance is no fault of the punctuation, but of the terms themselves. See also "philosopher–king," "work–life balance," "Clinton–Obama": "and," "with," even "versus," but always corralled into a dynamic relationship that demands consideration on its own terms while demanding the aggressive scrutiny of each individual term, its fissures, its overlaps, its vulnerabilities. The en dash is, in this way, the escape route from the ideology presupposed by the catchall hyphen that installs and reproduces and renders unquestionable an entire legion of hierarchies.

Why did he do it? Ever the sober linguist, why not say "dialectal"? Why sacrifice precision; why wander down the tortuous theoretical road of the dialectic? Last week, monkeying with "postpartisanism," Safire sinned upon disavowing a different en dash. His frustration over the phrase "post-baby boom" could easily have been resolved: the en dash can stand in for a hyphen when multiple words are being joined on one side. Functionally, "post–baby boom" is quite apart from the delights enabled in the internal workings of, say, "philosopher–king." But one context of use associatively slips toward the next, and Safire's "dialectical" proclivities this week suggest that he was ready, apprehensive, for this crucial step all along.

Leaving a trail of wreckage on account of his tenuous, overextended work with hyphens, and now jittery at the prospect that this might be his legacy, Safire seeks refuge. This week's bird-dog column is not only the pitiable capitulation of a punctuational know-nothing; it is a cry for help. That help lies in the en dash — help that the hyphen-wise, en dash–foolish Times, strangling expression by the day, seems unwilling to supply.

Peter Ekman


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